Searching for Prophets

Luke4Below is a VIDEO of a sermon I preached on January 28, 2019, concerning how to listen for prophetic voices and act within the prophetic tradition by comforting and advocating for the poor, the oppressed, and the captive.  These were the people Jesus focused on as he announced, in Luke 4: 14-21, that He was that prophet for whom people had long been waiting.  It is one of Scripture’s most famous passages.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” He said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners…recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free….”  I hope, in what follows, that the power of these words and the core of my concern will not be lost if I spend most of my time here correcting an error I made.

SERMON CORRECTION:  Near the end I quoted a statistic in error.  I said 99.6% of the benefits of the recent tax cut would go to the top 1%.  I simply grabbed the wrong note as I was rushing out the door that Sunday morning.  That figure from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) came from an analysis of a tax proposal Speaker Paul Ryan put up during the 2016 Presidential campaign in an attempt to put specific figures to the various plans being floated by his party, especially candidate Trump.  The tax cut plan finally passed still gives the lion’s share to the top 1% of American earners, but the percentage that seems to be floating around in most analyses, liberal or conservative, is more around 82%.  Most analyses base this figure on the TPC’s analysis of the actual tax cut passed by Congress.  TPC’s analysis also shows that at the beginning of the ten-year tax cut plan, most Americans benefit, but as the years pass most Americans benefit less and less, and many in the middle-income brackets will actually see a tax increase.  This is partly because, as currently written, tax cuts for corporations are permanent, but tax cuts for LordAnointindividuals are set to expire in 2027.  At the end of the tax cut plan, about 82% of the benefits will be going to the top 1%.  Conservative analysts therefore have tended to emphasize the beginning of the plan where most of us benefit—some a little, the top 1% much more—while liberal analysts have tended to emphasize the plan’s final years.  It’s possible that cuts for individuals might be renewed at the end ten years, maybe even made permanent, but this has a significant cost.  Already the cuts explode the nation’s deficit by some $1.5 trillion, and this would only get worse if the present plan continues in anything near its present form.  You can download the TPC analysis of the tax plan—about a 33 page pdf—from the  TPC website or, what will probably be easier to follow, read analyses based on this report from a variety of sources including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, and many others.  Just type in something like “How much of tax cut goes to top 1%” into your browsers.  Opinions vary widely, of course, some saying that the top 1% should get the lion’s share of the breaks, since they pay the lion’s share of taxes.  Others, with whom I tend to agree more, say that increasing the income and wealth gap, which the tax cut does, is finally not good for our democracy.  Neither is an exploding deficit.  Though I’ve never been a deficit hawk, the size and rate of the increase has begun to worry even me.

I regret my error, made in haste, but analysis of the tax cut was not at the heart of what I wanted to say anyway, though its effects are pertinent.  My main concern was really the increasing wealth gap in the United States and the effects this will have on the poor.  Those in poverty will need more and more of our attention in the future, as they will fall further and further behind (along with much of the lower middle class, and even some in the middle middle class).  That was the main point I wish I had made clearer.  If we can do anything to bring comfort to those who will be in these declining positions, or even help reverse the declines, we will partake in some of the prophetic duties Jesus announced in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

  For more on income inequality see “Graphic Inequality” and “The Racial Wealth Gap.” The latter (and its follow up pieces “Home Ownership and the Racial Wealth Gap” and “Reparations and the Racial Wealth Gap”) touches on home ownership issues which are at the heart of groups like our “family’s” foundation Emmanuel House—which started as Bryan House and is now The Neighbor Project.  I use quotes around “family” because The Neighbor project has gone far beyond our family now.  It’s part of a national network of organizations whose work, in essence, closes the wealth gap through home ownership, the quickest way to do this in the U.S. at present.

  OTHER SERMONS:  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet” …

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The Racial Wealth Gap

Every time I see a headline like the one below—”Racial Bias Among EMTs?”—I’m almost never surprised any more.  I have a big stack of reports from the Chicago Tribune detailing facts that black people, especially, get the poorest health care and education and job opportunities, are stopped unfairly by police and go to jail in hugely disproportionate numbers, also unfairly, are more harshly punished in school, etc. etc. etc.  I like using the Trib because it leans conservative—way conservative, some would say—so the reports can’t be accused of liberal bias.


Racism persists for very deep reasons.  James Baldwin has written about its roots in our symbolic reaction to the color black itself, and to our inability to deal with the real complexities of our humanity.  Less deep than these, though, are reasons most may not see because—unless you’re black—your chances of experiencing, say, unequal treatment from EMTs is so much lower you’ll probably never experience it at all.  Many whites will also tend to look at blacks as a whole and see large numbers of them living in the poorest neighborhoods, holding the lowest jobs, achieving at levels far below others.  They will tend to think that its been some years since Emancipation, why have blacks made so little progress.  One answer is institutional or systemic racism—attitudes and policies baked into the normal ways we do things every single day—which keep blacks from really accessing the opportunities they need.  This may also be difficult to understand if you’re not on the receiving end of it.

Blacks-Homes2Now, however, more and more people are becoming aware of growing income inequality and the growing wealth gap in the United States.  Bill Clinton’s colorful campaign strategist James Carville coined the slogan “The economy, stupid!” and dollars and cents seem to get through to people quicker than anything else.

There are any number of YouTube videos on the Racial Wealth Gap: lectures, interviews, animations, even one which attempts to explain it in 60 seconds.  I invite you to check these out.  But for me, the best video comes not from YouTube but Netflix.  The very first episode in its series Explained is a 16-minute film on The Racial Wealth Gap.  Near the beginning the film notes that the median white household’s net wealth is $171,000, but only $17,600 for black households—nearly 10 times less.  And since, on average, two-thirds of a family’s wealth comes from their home, home ownership is this short film’s central concern, a concern very prominent on this website.

When Rick and Desiree Guzman started a foundation, Emmanuel House, to honor the memory of Rick’s youngest brother, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman, its focus was on getting the working poor out of poverty through education, community involvement, equitable development—all these, yes—but mainly through home ownership, which adds a wealth and stability that makes all those other things more possible.  When Emmanuel House merged with long-time partner The Joseph Corporation, it became The Neighbor Project and more than tripled its capacity to get people into their first homes, or stay in the homes they were already in.

In another post, I’ll detail how Netflix’s Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap presents the black family’s fight to gain equal housing opportunity, and thus beginning building wealth.  It’s a fight of titanic proportions and titanically unequal odds. First of all, blacks start nearly 350 years behind whites, legally speaking, but still continue struggling to be let in to the housing market even to this day.

  Go to another article on Income Inequality, “Graphic Inequality,” and to two follow-up articles to this post: “Home Ownership and the Racial Wealth Gap” and “Reparations and the Racial Wealth Gap.”

  Watch my sermon “Searching for Prophets,” which touches on issues related to income inequality and the wealth gap.

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Ralph Ellison: Survival Blues

EllisonDuring my long career, I’ve been lucky to meet many writers. Somewhere in the mid-70’s, for example, I met Peter Matthiessen shortly after I’d read his great non-fiction book The Snow Leopard and used it in one of my classes.  I had him sign the mass market paperback of his gripping adventure novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel made into a movie in the early 90’s.  I loved his double take when he asked my name, and I said just “Guzman,” the name of one of the book’s notorious characters.  After Gwendolyn Brooks, Raja Rao, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and Haki Madhubuti, however, the writer I think of as the most luminous meeting of all is probably Ralph Ellison.

Here, after all, was the author of Invisible Man, a book many have considered the Great American Novel.  Again, it was the mid-70’s and I myself was working on my first book, a decidedly smaller project, Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz.  Ellison, a jazz musician himself, had written a couple of iconic pieces on jazz, and that—not, incredibly, Invisible Man—was what I wanted to talk with him about.  In particular, I asked him about a very public feud he’d had with LeRoi Jones (later Imamu Amiri Baraka) after he had reviewed Baraka’s book Blues People in 1963, a book highly touted because it was the first book about jazz written by a black person.  Though the feud was some dozen years old, it seemed to me that for Ellison it had happened just last week, such was the irritation that rose in his otherwise calm, sensitive voice and demeanor.

In his review of Blues People—later included in Ellison’s magnificent essay collection Shadow and Act—he accused Baraka of being too ideological, imposing an agenda on jazz and blues that robbed the music of its excitement, and, most of all,  a sense of men living in the world—of enslaved and politically weak men imposing their values upon a powerful society through song and dance.  Though I love Blues People and still think it one of the most important statements on blues and jazz, one must concede this paradox: it doesn’t always convey a strong sense of what blues and jazz are really like. Also, Ellison says, Baraka often makes rigid distinctions, like between country and classic blues, calling one “folk music” the other “entertainment.” Both kinds can function both ways: it depends on how one wants to use them. Most startlingly, Ellison says Baraka exaggerates the repressive nature of slavery.

Ellison-TheBluesBlacks, said Baraka, could not hope to grow up and be anything but slaves, but Ellison replies that this is too general, that as much as they were slaves, they also saw themselves as jockeys, butlers, farmers, cooks, and they had relationships as males and females, mothers and fathers. Of course, slavery was a vicious system, he says, but “…not (and this is important for Negroes to remember for the sake of their own sense of who and what their grandparents were) a state of absolute repression.”  Ellison is adamant. He feels Baraka has missed the art, the aesthetic, of the blues. And it is this aesthetic aspect, rising above the social and political, that made the music a technique of survival.  “For the blues,” writes Ellison, “are not primarily concerned with civil rights or obvious political protest; they are an art form and thus a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice.  As such they are one of the techniques through which Negroes have survived and kept their courage during the long period when many whites assumed, as some still assume, they were afraid.”

This fear is what the Invisible Man transcends, moves around, moves through, during the course of the novel, as he shifts shapes, courting visibility here, invisibility there as situations change.  And he’s funny, outrageous.  In a recent piece on Leon Forrest, I quote him saying that, after considering some transcendent moments of Gospel Music, he now understands what the old folks were saying: that to make it through this world you need “shit, grit, and mother wit,” things abundant in the Invisible Man’s daily arsenal.

Invisible Man, a memorial to Ralph Ellison, Riverside Park, NYC.

Invisible Man, a memorial to Ralph Ellison, Riverside Park, NYC.

And there’s this aspect of black people actually “living in the world” with each other.  In a scathing, deep review of another iconic black work, Richard Wright’s Native Son, James Baldwin says that’s what’s missing about the main character, Bigger Thomas.  Because the novel is so ideological, so stuck to the sociological plane, Baldwin says, “…a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, the depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life…which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners [to sustain them]…But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.”

Until Ralph Ellison.

The quote above comes from Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone,” in Notes of a Native Son.  In his “Autobiographical Notes,” the first essay of this seminal collection, he says, “…in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings—at least—of a more genuine penetrating search.  Mr. Ellison…is the first Negro novelist I have read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.”  Now in a world more and more of us realize is still deeply racist, still deeply oppressive of black people, that field of manners, that sense of irony and ambiguity, that sense of blues as survival needs to be invoked more strongly than ever.

  Go to a List of Black Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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